Can Pregnant Women Eat Hot Dogs?

Mothers-to-Be Like Hot Dogs Too!

Every year Americans chomp down on about 20 billion hot dogs. They eat them at home, at ballgames, picnics and parties, county fairs and backyard barbecues. Pregnant women are no exception to this massive love-feast, nor should they be. Yes, hot dogs present some problems, but a few simple precautionary measures can take the worry out of indulging.

Get Them While They're Hot

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Hot dogs are among the processed foods that may carry Listeria bacteria, which can cause listeriosis, a rare type of bacterial infection. Most adults who contract listeriosis experience it as a sort of mild, flu-like illness that generally goes away on its own. It's also rare in pregnant women, yet they are 20 times more likely than other adults to be infected, and the consequences can be far more damaging to them and to their babies.

Women can become infected with listeriosis at any time during pregnancy. Usually symptoms appear between two and 30 days after exposure. During the third trimester, the immune system typically weakens somewhat; thus women are more vulnerable to infection at that time. Some infected women experience headaches, muscle aches, nausea and diarrhea. Others might feel like they're coming down with the flu. If you have these symptoms, tell your doctor. Left untreated, the infection can spread to the nervous system and cause neck stiffness, confusion and even convulsions. Listeriosis has also been linked to miscarriages, stillborn births and birth defects. However, the chances of any one pregnant woman getting infected are very slim.

By taking some commonsense precautions, you can avoid even that small chance of infection. These measures apply to hot dogs, bratwurst, bologna, chicken roll, olive loaf—in fact, cold cuts and deli meats in general. Heat destroys the bacteria, as simple as that. Cook hot dogs and deli meats to at least 165 degrees. Use a kitchen thermometer, or simply slice the meat; if it's steaming in the center, you have accomplished your goal. In any case, hot dogs are a dish not best served cold.

But Wait—There's More!

The grilled frankfurters served up at a barbecue are probably hot enough to prevent bacterial infection. Nevertheless, research has shown that women who eat barbecued meat, especially in the third trimester of pregnancy, are more likely to have babies that are both underweight and undersized.

When your hot dog hits a hot grill, dangerous chemicals can form. These are known as PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons) and HCAs (heterocyclic amines). PAHs are produced when fat drips down and smoke and flames result, thus transferring chemicals to the meat. When you eat the meat, these chemicals pass into the placenta and then are transferred to the fetus. HCAs form when the meat is cooked at high temperatures, especially above 300 degrees. Research has shown that fetuses and infants are more vulnerable to such toxins than adults.

Never fear; you can still eat barbecue safely. Again, take commonsense measures. Avoid fatty meat on the grill to reduce dripping. Don't let your meat get charred, as charring exacerbates the effect of the chemicals. Choose hardwood such as maple or hickory for your barbecue fire; they burn at lower temperatures than soft woods.

Nitrites, Nitrates—Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

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For many years it was customary to add nitrates and nitrites to processed meats as a preservative and color-enhancer. The problem was that, once consumed, they can form carcinogenic nitrosamines in the body—not healthy for pregnant women or for their babies either.

The good news about nitrates and nitrites is that it's easier now to find hot dogs that don't include them. Even major companies like Oscar Mayer and Ball Park are offering nitrate-free dogs. Applegate's Great Organic Uncured Turkey Hot Dog and Waterhill Naturals Uncured Turkey Hot Dogs are healthy choices.

Vegetarian hot dogs, brats and cold cuts—even veggie corn dogs—are also available for those who are so inclined. MorningStar Farms, Quorn, Gardein and Tofurky specialize in meat substitutes. Just be forewarned that many "mock meats" have high sodium content and contain not-so-healthy chemicals. A lot of them are made with wheat and are therefore not gluten-free. Read the lists of ingredients carefully, taking special note of sodium content and unfamiliar chemicals.

Everything in Moderation

So go ahead and give yourself a treat. An occasional hot dog is perfectly okay, as long as you don't overdo it. And don't enter any hot dog-eating contests (the record is 72 hot dogs gobbled down in 10 minutes!), at least not while you're pregnant.